Duolingo Korean Review – Should You Use It? [2020 Edition]

Aejee Jang

So you’re interested in Duolingo Korean but sure if it’s right for you? You’re in the right place!

5 years ago, I was first recommended to try Duolingo to learn English. After English, I’ve dabbled in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese with this app.  After learning that Duolingo added a Korean course, as a Korean teacher, I got curious and tried to see if it is worth recommending to my students and Korean-learning friends.

Duolingo, with over 300 million users across the world and more than 30 language courses, is the largest language learning platform today. But is it effective for learning Korean? Is it the app for you? This is a thorough and honest review from the perspective of a native Korean teacher. I will go over its teaching style, content, strengths and weaknesses and best alternatives. 

How does Duolingo work?

“Learn a language for free. Forever.” 

That is Duolingo’s slogan. All Duolingo courses are free of charge and accessible to everyone. It can do so because it relies on volunteers from all over the world to contribute to course development. So where’s the catch? 

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Duolingo’s desktop homepage

Duolingo runs advertisements between lessons, but they are easy to skip. Alternatively, Duolingo also offers a premium service for a fee. If you purchase the “Plus” plan, it eliminates ads and provides additional features

Underlying Principles of Duolingo’s Teaching 

“Scientifically proven to be effective.” 

Duolingo teaches users with an  inductive and implicit teaching method.

Inductive learning is a process of learning by example, and implicit learning is a method that allows learners to discover patterns without their conscious attention. Both inductive and implicit learning approaches are similar to the ways we learned our first language as kids. 

Based on these methods, Duolingo steers users away from traditional learning methods like lectures or reading-based lessons. Instead, you are immersed in information without explanation and immediately asked to answer questions about it.  

Simply put, the app lets you guess until you get it right, even if you don’t understand why you got it right.

In addition, Duolingo’s content doesn’t go into detail about grammar rules. When it comes to some complex grammar principles, the lessons may be an ultimate guessing game of trial and error. This approach may be useful for some users, but for others, it may seem ineffective.

Duolingo’s Game-like Lessons

 

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Duolingo’s gamified features

Duolingo has adopted a mobile game style to engage its users. 

You can earn virtual currencies like Lingots and Gems, which you can spend on customizing the little owl character. 

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Choose your daily preferred XP goal

You can also earn and level up from XPs (experience points), a system that shows your skill-level. The team also designed a lot of badges to encourage actions like completing specific challenges or adding friends from your contact list. 

These gamified elements are implemented to motivate you to keep coming back to learn every day.

 

How does Duolingo teach Korean?

The first few lessons are all about Hangul. Then, you begin learning basic phrases, verbs, and sentences from a daily selection. Overall, Duolingo’s study process combines various methods and exercises.

What kinds of exercises can you access? 

  • Making pairs and selecting the correct characters: questions especially for practicing Hangul 
  • Listening: Tap what you hear and choose the right pronunciation and words 
  • Translation: many exercises based on “translate this sentence” to practice forming the right phrases and sentences 
  • Speaking: speak-to-text to answer the questions 
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Pairing, Listening, Translation, and Speaking exercises 

 

Building Up Vocabulary and Phrases

Duolingo can be a big help in building vocabulary.  For instance, the Duolingo Incubator is where multilingual volunteers build the language courses for Duolingo. According to this platform, you can learn over 3,000 words in the Duolingo Korean course.

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Duolingo Incubator website for Korean language contributors

With this, it’s safe to say that Duolingo Korean covers the most common vocabulary and phrases to communicate and write basic thoughts and ideas in present, past, and future tenses. To make learning easier, lessons are grouped into themes, so you can practice vocabulary related to a specific topic. 

Duolingo gradually teaches vocabulary and finetunes the level of difficulty according to your skill level, ranging from “not-too-easy” to “not-too-difficult” tasks. Therefore, it’s a very good resource to boost your vocabulary. 

Is Duolingo Korean helpful for TOPIK test preparation?

TOPIK level 1 requires knowledge of 800 basic words and 1,500-2,000 words for level 2. Tests for  both levels focus on 70 listening and reading skill questions. 

If you are working hard and have a good Korean language sense, you may be able to pass the test, but it may be unrealistic to expect to pass the TOPIK level 3 or above with Duolingo alone. 

This is because the app makes you practice vocabulary, phrases and sentences without emphasizing grammatical components in detail. 

Does it teach honorifics and speech levels? 

The Korean language has a unique speaking style called “honorifics” and speech levels. These are ways of delivering the right amount of respect and formality to the people you speak to or speak of. 

If you’re talking about someone senior or elder, an honorific should be applied by replacing nouns, verbs or adjectives with respectful forms, otherwise you risk sounding very impolite.

In addition, from a cultural perspective, Koreans use formal or informal speech according to the situation. By using the proper speech levels, (Korean has seven levels, by the way), it shows respect towards the people they are talking to or about. 

Duolingo’s Korean course includes commonly used speech levels such as the “formal polite”, (하십시오체/합쇼체) and “polite” (해요체) randomly. More importantly, there are three lessons that teach another speech level and help you practice honorific forms, but the lessons don’t provide a clear indication of which the speech level is to be used in the exercise. 

The lack of clarity and organization doesn’t help you understand honorifics, a concept that can scare foreigners away from learning Korean.  

Special lessons on pop culture and 2018 Winter Olympics

Thanks to the Korean Wave, known as the rise in the popularity Korean pop culture around the world, many are hungry for learning more about this phenomenon! To satisfy its users’ appetite, Duolingo added a special lesson dedicated to aspects of Korean pop culture at the end of the course. 

If you are a huge sports fan, you may be interested in another bonus lesson dedicated to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics!

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Problems with Duolingo Korean

Duolingo first released its Korean course back in October 2017. Since it’s relatively new and not as developed as Duolingo’s French and Spanish programs, for instance, some errors and issues remain despite its recent updates and improvements over time. 

Let’s look closely at where Duolingo falls short, and to see if it’s still worth your precious time.

Problem #1: Lack of explanation

Korean is a fundamentally different language compared to western languages like French, German and Spanish. It is also one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, along with Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.  Since Korean is hard to grasp for beginners, understanding the rules behind Korean grammar is essential.

For instance, Korean has a relatively flexible word order and uses sentence particles such as, 은, 는, 이, 가, etc.,  which are not found in English. On the other hand, Korean language doesn’t use articles and usually omits plural markers in sentences. 

So Duolingo’s style can be summarized as leaving the users in the dark and expecting them to figure out the rules on their own. This style of language learning is like a double-edged sword; it may work for some people but definitely not everyone.

Problem #2: It’s not the best format for learning Hangul 

Hangul is the Korean alphabet. Consisting of 21 vowels and 19 consonants, Korean letters are written in syllable blocks, which each block represents a single syllable with two to four letters. 

In Duolingo, Hangul is presented as syllable blocks, but the app does not have the best format for learning the alphabet. 

 

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Duolingo’s Hangul Alphabet Exercise

The problem is that there’s no indication that Hangul is an alphabet, definition of vowels and consonants, or how the letters come together to form words. It just dives right into sound combination questions and shows new words and phrases. 

With no guidance, learners must guess how to use Hangul, which might overwhelm absolute beginners. 

One of Duolingo Korean’s biggest criticisms is that it relies too much on romanization to teach Hangul from the beginning. Usually once the alphabet is introduced properly, the learner shouldn’t need to use romanization again. 

Problem #3: Useless, nonsensical and too basic sentences

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This sentence translates to “A man who is drinking sweat”.             Pretty bizarre, huh?

Duolingo uses strange and nonsensical sentences like “The bus climbs up to a chair” and “A man who is drinking sweat” intentionally to make phrases more fun to learn, and in hopes to bring people’s attention to the sentence structure

However, these sentences aren’t really useful and practical because they don’t occur in everyday speech! Despite the app updates constantly to improve, mistakes, strange sentences and awkward translations remain. 

Duolingo’s Korean course covers a good amount of basic words, which is a good starting point. But this course fails to go beyond beginner level, so users shouldn’t expect to achieve high level fluency by only using this app. 

Problem #4: Poor audio quality

Duolingo is not a helpful resource for practicing listening and pronunciation skills. For one, the lessons have a robotic, monotone computer-generated female voice, which doesn’t sound natural at all. 

“Her” tone  is really unhelpful for learning the right way to speak in a culture that highly values respect and social hierarchy. Not to mention that it’s bad for anyone who attempts to imitate the pronunciation.  

Should you learn Korean with Duolingo?

Duolingo can be a great tool for what it offers. But whether it is really helpful or not depends on your Korean learning style and goal.

Duolingo is good if you:

  • need to brush up on Korean: repeating exercises can help refresh your memory especially in times like grabbing lunch or waiting in line.
  • need a game-like environment to learn: if this is your case, Duolingo is the perfect one for you. You can literally enjoy learning with this gamified method.
  • don’t plan to spend any money on learning a language: it can be done, but it may not be so efficient. 

Who shouldn’t learn Korean with Duolingo?

  • Total beginners: It is not suitable for newbies to start learning Korean with Duolingo for obvious reasons. With Duolingo, you must guess how everything works, which may end up making you give up learning Korean.
  • Intermediate Students: It’s not great at teaching anything beyond vocabulary and basic phrases. 
  • People who learn better with explanations: If you want to understand Korean alphabet and grammar, Duolingo would not be for you. 
  • Students preparing for TOPIK tests: needless to say, Duolingo is not for test prepping. 

Good Alternatives to Duolingo Korean 

LingoDeer

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Practice Reading and Listing Skills with LingoDeer’s Story feature 

It’s safe to say LingoDeer is the best alternative to Duolingo Korean if you like learning with apps or programs. According to the app’s description pages, LingoDeer is more geared towards Asian languages. And after playing with it, I find myself nodding. 

Personally, I love the fact that LingoDeer starts with Hangul and goes over the pronunciation. It has over a hundred detailed grammar explanation articles for beginners and intermediates. 

The order of lessons is well designed and organized. There are a lot of various exercise types in the lessons, such as removing improper words, spelling the word, adding words to the right place, filling in the blank, and so on. The variety of exercises keeps you motivated throughout the lessons. 

Especially since the sentences are recorded by native speakers and in high definition, you can actually improve listening and speaking skills by shadowing the audio.  

Korean Grammar in Use 

If you like sitting down with a book, you can get both the textbook and the workbook. Korean Grammar in Use has so much grammar packed into each book. There are 3 books (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and they come with audio CDs. 

 

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Photo courtesy of Amazon

It explains the grammar point, gives example sentences in Korean and English, and provides some practice dialogue as well as fill in the blank. It covers the grammar in the first and second grade of the textbooks taught at Korean university institutions.

Talk To Me In Korean

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Books from Talk To Me In Korean (talktomeinkorean.com)

Another famous textbook series is Talk to me in Korean. They offer various sets for beginners and intermediate learners as well as for absolute beginners who want to practice Hangul. 

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How to learn Hangul fast and easily
2 months ago

[…] what the next step in learning Korean is? Common greeting and phrases? Grammatical rules? Which app is better for learning Korean? Keep following our blog and getting useful tips about everything you need to know in learning […]

Ol'COL
Ol'COL
24 days ago

If one does not have access to formal Korean language classes, what are the best options and why. This article does not provide any useful information on learning Korean for someone who wishes to be reasonably fluent and to be able to communicate in an educated manner in the language. Is 90-day Korean useful? I learn by listening, repeating and persistent practice.

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